Sunlight on the Garden – Louis MacNeice – Analysis

Sunlight on the Garden
The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold;
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.
Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.
The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying
And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.
Louis MacNeice (1907 – 1963)

The title – The Sunlight on the Garden – this creates an image in the mind and as soon as you have read the poem an association develops. As the poem is familiar immediate thoughts come to mind. But independently, I do like the image of garden and sunlight and how the garden is brought into prominence by the highlight of the sun. And if we mull over these words and what they conjure in the mind we can think of a garden scene and whether there is an unforgettable event prominent in our own personal thoughts. It is the key image that flows through the poem with repetition of text in the first and last lines. The poem explores a somewhat emotional journey as one specific instance is considered over time.

S1 … sad grief, loss … and that there can be no return to an event that happened … where perhaps choice was involved … where actions could have been different … maybe inappropriate behaviour, a wish that he had done differently … behaviour that cannot now be pardoned … at the same time a golden moment that has held personal value over the years.

S2 … time takes us quickly to an end … the world produces sonnets and birds … the created world, the product of man … and the natural world, both have beauty associations … but more important no time for dances … no time to be close together … a distinct feeling that there is a lamentation on a relationship

S3 … written in 1936 … the situation across the channel a little dark … flying, different birds are now involved, – blue sky shadows of evil iron = warplanes, and sirens suggests warning of air raids … we are dying … becoming history … Egypt symbolises history … his grief marries into the sad foreboding of war and the fact that life is changing not for the better

S4 … we are hardened by life experience … no pardon needed, if that was possible and now an acceptance, a thankyou … the end of reflection on personal experience … for being with someone very special … even if there has been thunder and rain … for sunlight on the garden … a repetition of title and the first line of the first stanza … glad for the golden moment … not troubled … and life can resume with the removal of this mind-shadow perhaps

The poem addresses those critical events in life when we wish we had made different choices. Events that we still hold on too, and perhaps find hard to accept even after many years.

On Wikipedia – Louis MacNeice – Wikipedia

Details on structure and poetic technique from Wikipedia …

The Sunlight on the Garden is a poem of four stanzas, each of six lines. It is a highly formal poem, and has been much admired as an example of MacNeice’s poetic technique. All the lines are loose three-beat lines or trimeters, except for the fifth line of each stanza, which is a dimeter. The rhyme scheme is ABCBBA. The A rhyme in the first stanza (“garden/pardon”) returns in the final stanza, but with the words reversed (“pardon/garden”). In addition to end rhyme, MacNeice makes use of internal rhyme, rhyming the end of the first line with the beginning of the second line (“lances/Advances”) and the end of the third line with the beginning of the fourth line (“under/Thunder”). George MacBeth comments that the rhyme scheme “has the effect of dovetailing the lines together and producing a constant sense of echo emphasising the lingering, fading quality of the joys of life which the poem is talking about.”[8]

In the Valley of Cauteretz – Tennyson

In the Valley of Cauteretz
All along the valley, stream that flashest white,
Deepening thy voice with the deepening of the night,
All along the valley, where thy waters flow,
I walked with one I loved two and thirty years ago.
All along the valley, while I walked today,
The two and thirty years were a mist that rolls away ;
For all along the valley, down thy rocky bed,
Thy living voice to me was as the voice of the dead,
And all along the valley, by rock and cave and tree,
The voice of the dead was a living voice to me.
Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892)

Tennyson went to the Pyrenees with Arthur Hallam in 1830. This was his favourite valley. Hallam was a very close friend from days at Trinity College Cambridge. Hallam died of a stroke at the age of 22. This had a profound effect on Tennyson and resulted in one of his most memorable of poems ‘In Memoriam’.

Tennyson went to this valley again in 1861. And at the time of his birthday around 6 August Tennyson composed these lines. He wrote the piece ‘after hearing the voice of the torrent seemingly grow deeper as the night grew’. And he said afterwards that ‘I like the little piece as well as anything I have written’.

This is a poem about memory and grief and how personal association can trigger a deep emotional response. He again heard the voice of his dead friend albeit a mind voice. And he was back again when he was first walking with Hallam in the valley – ‘the two and thirty years were a mist that rolls away’.

How do you handle those golden moments of life that assail the mind long after their initial impact? They are precious and a handy resource … for use in meditation perhaps … or any time when you are low and need a lift. A case of distilling the essence from life experience to hold for spiritual sustenance. Hopefully a relive of joy and peace as day to day life continues.

Note … Tennyson appreciated nature. He was an avid walker and at one stage while in Cornwall walked 10 miles each day for ten consecutive days. The poem also poses the question on how the natural environment communicates with us. A background to our definition.

Tennyson became Poet Laureate after Wordsworth.

Alfred Lord Tennyson on Wikipedia – Alfred, Lord Tennyson – Wikipedia

A Small Story – Peter Everwine – Analysis

A Small Story

When Mrs. McCausland comes to mind
she slips through a small gap in oblivion
and walks down her front steps, in her hand
a small red velvet pillow she tucks
under the head of Old Jim Schreiber,
who is lying dead-drunk against the curb
of busy Market Street. Then she turns,
labors up the steps and is gone . . .
A small story. Or rather, the memory
of a story I heard as a boy. The witnesses
are not to be found, the steps lead nowhere,
the pillow has collapsed into a thread of dust . .
Do the dead come back only to remind us
they, too, were once among the living,
and that the story we make of our lives
is a mystery of luminous, but uncertain moments,
a shuffle of images we carry toward sleep—
Mrs. McCausland with her velvet pillow,
Old Jim at peace—a story, like a small
clearing in the woods at night, seen
from the windows of a passing train.

Peter Everwine

This is a poem all to do with memory and age. Reflecting on an incident when a child and perhaps reflecting on something that has been recalled many times throughout a lifetime. The two characters that stand out are Mrs McCausland and Jim Schrieber. And the interaction of the red velvet pillow which makes the first stanza standout. Who would put a red velvet pillow under the head of a drunk in a busy street? What does it symbolise and what does it say about Mrs McClausland?

We do not know Mrs McClausland’s first name perhaps indicating she is a person of note. But I should imagine everybody knows Old Jim Schreiber especially if he goes around in a drunken stupor sleeping in the town gutter. Apart from being an expensive pillow it is red. I would like to think that Mrs McClausland is giving attention to the town-folk about Jim, giving value to his life and at the same time perhaps suggesting that something should be done to help him.

But getting back to memory, the child is not a witness to the event. He only remembers it from a story told by others probably family. The fact that it has been talked about to make a story indicates that it is a somewhat unusual event. The child is probably well aware of the two characters. No other characters come to mind ‘the witnesses are not to be found’ and the ‘steps lead nowhere’ for it is only a small insignificant story and gone to dust. But the memory is still there. Perhaps written from the perspective of an aged person turning to dust himself in the near future?

The first stanza is an event, the second a contemplation from that event to promote the reader to thought. Well of course the dead do come back to life when they live in the mind of the living. The living re-image the dead in their own unique personal way. And such memories do have on-going influence on the living. In my recent Post we see exactly that in the repeat of the father’s words ‘good fences make good neighbours’ in the Robert Frost poem ‘Mending Wall’. And family words of those we’ve known are apt to walk the mind quite frequently. My mother always used to end our conversations with two words and when I hear these two words in whatever context my mother is there too.

The story we make of our lives is a small story and no more than a collection of fleeting images from ‘the windows of a passing train’. ‘A shuffle of images we carry toward sleep’.But perhaps our lives will seed some memory in those that have known us and hopefully in a positive bright light when seen from that train window!

God Bless

A link to the poet Peter Everwine